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The way Dan Pallotta thinks about charity is dead wrong

I’ve noticed Dan Pallotta’s ‘The way we think about charity is dead wrong’ TED talk seems to be spreading around the internet quite quickly. The title grabbed me, but the content couldn’t be more off. So I thought I’d weigh in with an alternative perspective.

Firstly, where I agree with him: many of the ways our charities work, stifle innovation.

Definitely. But his approach is to turn the charitable sector into an extension of the free market. Even with an opening in which he acknowledges that human stories can’t be monitized, he goes on to prescribe market solutions for the rest of what the non-profit world should be doing. ‘Philanthropy is the market for Love,’ he tells us, hinting at the lens he views the world through early on in the talk.

But there is no ‘market for Love,’ and markets are not where the solution lies, in my opinion. Two of his specific arguments truly irk me:

1) That more talented people go into higher paying jobs, and thus are put off working in the non-profit sectors

2) That change is best achieved by massive organisations addressing massive social issues.

Mo’ money, mo’ talent?

Just look at the most highly paid jobs in a market economy and how many of them have even a minimal social value? Conversely, how many of them have a sum negative impact on the world? The financial sector (in the broadest terms), attracts those who are primarily interested in making money – to the detriment of all else.

I don’t believe that ‘the most talented people’ the world has to offer are the ones who have laid-off so many workers in the name of ‘staying competitive,’ or who have decided that wars and climate change are simply the ‘costs of doing business.’  These actions require a certain kind of deliberate ignorance, which is not a trait civil society organisations need. Quite the opposite!

As charities begin to reinforce the market logic that you should spend your time making as much money as you possibly can for yourself, it will only reinforce the many social and environmental side-effects that such an attitude has in an unchecked free market.

The motivations that often get people working in a charity or NGO, such as passion for and commitment to a cause, or a better world, more generally, are at odds with this. They see life’s goals as more pluralistic than simply ‘get as much as you can for yourself.’ That attitude is killing our species, our societies and the planet we all call home. Infinite growth, whether for an individual bank account, or a global economy, cannot be maintained on a planet of finite resources. It is the problem.

We need different ways of understanding value and success.

Further, the kinds of university programmes Pallotta describes as producing ‘the best talent’ still seem to churn out private sector MBAs who exchange everything in the world, for short-term profits, and who have been at the core of countless broader scandals and crises. Our ‘Ivy League’ institutions are indeed part of the problem. Some may come out with their moral compass reasonably intact, but the vast majority learn to run a kind of ‘efficient’ organisation that can only see budget lines, at the cost of anything that can’t be measured in money.

Dan Pink has written extensively about costs of trying to link money and motivation, and argued convincingly that intrinsic motivation (like passion for your work) is far stronger than extrinsic motivation (like a bonus, or a high salary). When our systems cater to the latter, lots of bad things start to happen, encouraging a range of ‘gaming’ tactics, in which dishonesty becomes the norm, and the true objectives are sidelined for the short-term targets with personal self-interest attached. Basically, these kinds of motivations (Pink calls them ‘if-then’ motivators) pit self-interest against collective interest, encouraging people to act selfishly, rather than trying to align ‘what is best for me’ and ‘what is best for us.’

Bigger is better?

There’s another idea that ‘bigger organisations are more efficient, and thus more equipped to address big social ills, than smaller ones.’

But this doesn’t hold much water, either.

Big organisations seem far better at producing quantitative results, at the cost of qualitative ones. And to the point where the ‘quality’ can actually be a sum negative impact (rather than just ‘not as good as it could be’ one). Stories abound of big NGOs that have ended up doing more harm than good, as their disconnect from the on-the-ground realities of so many of their own projects, means that for all their ‘efficiency savings,’ they were actually doing the wrong thing in the first place!

Billions and billions in governmental and philanthropic funds are channelled into the sphere of aid and international development each year, but many of the problems keep getting worse. We mean well, but for all our best intents, most of those costly, large scale efforts aren’t achieving what they are meant to.

When it comes to complex social change, context and relationships really are everything. Just because something worked well in one time and place, doesn’t mean it will easily be carried over to another. ‘Scaling up’ – a notion at the core of so many large programmes – is a doomed idea, as tantalising as it can be. Organisations which try to replicate one solution, in another place, often miss the critical non-replicable factors of individual relationships and nuanced context that were at the core of any initial successes.

Alternatively, Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze have advocated ‘scaling across’ – a more grassroots process, in which smaller, local projects can share ideas directly with one another, spreading value where it is needed, without imposing it as a blueprint to be followed to the letter.

‘Scaling up’ comes from the kind of managerialism still taught in many of the institutions Pallotta advocates non-profits get their execs from. It is the notion that distant, well-paid ‘experts’ know better than people who are experiencing an issue themselves, how best to address that issue.

The hubris of this long-standing belief is staggering, and is at the core of why many smaller, local efforts, often do better work than larger organisations – even when appearing ‘inefficient’: people understand their own situations better than anyone else.

If you knock down those two pillars of Pallotta’s talk, I think the rest crumbles with it. What he advocates is more of the same ‘NGOs should be more like the private sector’ approach that has been advocated – and often applied, at considerable cost – to the world of social change organisations for decades.

I say no. ‘More like people’ isn’t afraid to learn things from a range of places, but the lessons Pallotta advocates specifically undermine the sense of humanity that we need more of. If we want to make more of a difference through our organisations, let’s not rely on MBAs, devoid of any ethical grounding, or large scale development projects that have no way of really knowing what’s going on at street level. We don’t have to be puritanical, as Pallotta suggests, to avoid adopting the greed that creates so many of the social ills our organisations work against. We just need to stay in touch with the values that motivate us to create change in the world.

Like what you’ve read? Help publish my book, ‘Anarchists in the Boardroom: How social media and social movements can help your organisation to be more like people’ and pre-order it now!

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change how we organise. change the world. (PS – we can start crowd-funding the book now)

…The title is why I’ve written Anarchists in the Boardroom and have started the crowd-funding campaign to have it published today. In the last 12 or so years of varying combinations of activism and organisational development work, I really believe this to be true. The old ways are holding us back, limiting our collective potential to create change in the world and driving wedges between people who should be working together for something better. If we change how we do what we do, our time, effort and energy may go infinitely further than the old hierarchies could ever have imagined…

The ends do not justify the means. In the name of this slogan, many injustices have been spawned, from large scale atrocities, to out-of-touch campaigns and services, no longer serving those they began operating in the names of.

Dehumanising management systems and practices – even when they are well-intentioned – exemplify ‘ends-justify-the-means’ thinking every day, sucking the life out of the people who should be most committed to their organisations’ work.

The essence of management, as we know it, lies in the belief that ‘if we don’t tell others what to do, they’ll probably get it wrong.’ But it’s this belief that is wrong, yet most of our organisational structures are built upon it.

If we truly believe in equality, we need to organise ourselves with a clear sense of equality, ensuring that all of those involved have an equal voice in shaping what we do.

If we truly believe in human potential, we need to give it the space to reveal itself, not boxing it into a pre-set job title, or measurable outcome, but allowing it to find its own path to greatness.

If we truly believe in accountability, we need to be transparent in all that we do, making sure our work leaves nothing to be ashamed of, rather than simply trying to hide away the parts of it that might embarrass us.

There is no reason why we should have to undermine the things we believe in, in order to make the world a better place. Quite the opposite! In fact, doing so is usually a good indication that we won’t get where we think we’re going.

The adoption of industrial organising models has not brought the promise to social change organisations that it did for the manufacturing process. The kinds of social transformation most of us want to see are not made on assembly lines, but emerge through the countless autonomous actions of those who care, living their values in every stage of the change process, bringing about something new through their many individual choices to do things differently.

But I believe there is a path from the institutions of yesterday, to the unknown organising patterns of tomorrow. I’ve chosen to look to social media and new social movements for hope, but I’m sure others will find it in other unexpected sources of inspiration.

I’ve written this book as my first significant contribution to what will be a varied, messy, and unpredictable process of collective change, from professionalism to humanity; hierarchy to network; control to trust.

There’s no reason the same principles that can change our organisations can’t also change our world. Think of your organisation as one-of-many test grounds for something much bigger.

When we let go of our obsessive attempts to control complex groups of people (whether organisations, or societies), we open up new possibilities and human potentials in every realm.

But like the transition I describe, this book will not be published just because I want it to be. Others will have to want it to, if it is going to get beyond my laptop.

…Which is why today is the start of the crowd-funding campaign on StartSomeGood.com to publish ‘Anarchists in the Boardroom.’ You can visit the campaign page here to pledge, or read a snippet from the book if you’re still looking to be convinced.

Pledge for a book, pledge for a bit of my time, pledge for a few copies for the office and use them to spark discussions amongst colleagues as to how you can all start living your values in the ways you work to bring about a bit of good in the world each day…

And if you’re not in a position to pledge right now, feel free to share it with anyone else you think would be interested in reading the book.

I am deeply appreciative for whatever you can do to help make this happen and wherever we take the conversations from here!

Hugs,

Liam

Pledge now!

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The Law of Organisational Affluence or ‘Why hotels are more than a waste of money’

‘The more social change organisations decide they need to pay for things, the less good work they do.’

Once, a local dog jumped into one of the tents we stayed in...

Once, a local dog jumped into one of the tents we stayed in…

Let’s call this ‘The Law of Organisational Affluence,’ and before you write this blanket statement off, let me add the disclaimer that, like all ‘laws,’ it will probably have almost as many exceptions as it does validations.

But indulge me…

Necessity breeds reciprocity

In countless community groups, artist networks and activist collectives, there is so little money going around, that people must find other ways of getting things done, often with the help of others.

Travelling to an event? Can you get a ride with someone?

Staying overnight? Can you crash on someone’s couch?

Need to promote something? Can you see who will add it to their newsletter, website, or put your flyers in their lobby?

Comparatively, in most wealthier organisations, the ease, convenience and predictability of a cash transaction comes to change the nature of these kinds of questions quite a lot.

Travelling to an event? Get a taxi.

Staying overnight? Book a hotel room.

Need to promote something? Pay for ad space.

In each of these later scenarios, the trade-off for ease, convenience, and predictability, is not just a question of the additional money spent – something more is lost when we start to assume that such expenses are a) ‘needed’ and b) the best way to address these needs.

Cash transactions close the door to a more reciprocal kind of give-and-take, and this reciprocity has long been one of the underpinning tenets of the kind of work our organisations do. Without a community and a culture of this kind of reciprocity, it is far easier to lose track of the bigger picture that our work is a part of.

Of course there will be times when any organisation will really need these things, but there is a significant difference between organisational cultures when such expenses are the exception, and when they are the rule.

Slummin’ with students

Working with a small student organisation last year, I travelled a fair bit. This usually meant staying on couches of those hosting me. I also slept on gym floors, in tents, at a couple of youth hostels and multiple scout camp dormitories with this particular organisation. Whatever the students got, that’s what those of us who were paid to be there got as well.

It was basic. Not a luxurious way to work, but hotels were one of many things that were simply not in the budget.

And while this was largely a question of necessity, it had some very positive side-effects. The lines between staff and students in the network were far blurrier than the paid/unpaid divide in most organisations. This made for immeasurably stronger relationships than most of those I’ve experienced in institutions where such delineations are more clearly defined. And stronger relationships usually meant a much higher standard of work getting done (relative to my experiences with wealthier organisations), because people really felt a shared sense of commitment to each other and the actions they were involved in. They also just felt more comfortable together, having had considerably more ‘in-between time’ to get to know each other. And the lack-of-hotels was definitely a part of this.

If I had retreated to lonely hotel rooms after each workshop (as I have with other organisations), it would have been more than just my bed (or sleeping bag) that changed. I would have missed countless hours of important conversations with students – whether about the campaign they were spearheading on campus, or something entirely unrelated going on in their lives. Both helped us work better together, though would have been unlikely to fit into the formally scheduled activities. Avoiding hotels opened the possibilities of the kinds of relationships that rarely emerge when shared time is entirely pre-determined by scheduled activities.

Even if there had been a budget to pay for hotels, doing so would have undermined the work. I don’t think it’s entirely coincidental that this particular organisation didn’t write these kinds of costs into most of their funding bids.

In times of scarcity, these kinds of interactions are made plentiful by necessity, but when there is more money in the picture, such experiences are often lost.

Necessity breeds reciprocity; reciprocity nurtures stronger relationships; stronger relationships build community; community improves the odds of better work getting done.

‘But!… But!… But!…’

I can hear the arguments – ‘I shouldn’t have to sleep on someone’s couch/ troll through my networks to find a ride/ beg and borrow for the things I need to do my work!’

To which I say, ‘why not?’ Are these really such major sacrifices to make for an important cause? And are they in fact sacrifices, or simply trade-offs? A minimal loss of privacy, for a greater sense of connection with the people who are a part of your work and your cause?

The sense of entitlement that can often sneak into organisational cultures does not just cost money – it costs relationships, and may well affect the quality of work that is or isn’t being done.

But we’ll never know about the potential we are missing if we don’t give it a try.

What can you avoid paying for, next time the choice arises?

What can you stop budgeting for, the next time you’re writing a proposal?

What might you do instead?

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Don’t bank on Payment by Results

…Still frustrated by ‘payment by results’ funding. Even more so when someone from Barclays bank decides to explain to charities how to make it work. Because it won’t, and we need to make that clear. Its costs will be significant, if we let it become the standard for public funding.

Diego Rivera w/ a monkey: better than payment by results

Diego Rivera w/ a monkey: better than payment by results

I’m going to offer David McHattie the benefit of the doubt and assume his recent piece on how charities should prepare for payment by results (PBR) funding was based on a naive pragmatism, rather than a more cynical attempt to make public services run more like the disgraced bank he works for.

There are so many fundamental and damaging problems with the Payment by Results model, that no one article could give them all the space they need. From crowding-out smaller organisations who can’t afford the financial risk, to encouraging exactly the types of ‘gaming’ approaches that target-driven funding has long-fostered, and ignoring the unpredictable complexity of social problems (that most funding regimes are guilty of), PBR is a powder keg for the voluntary sector and anything shy of an outright denouncement can only lend it a legitimacy it doesn’t deserve.

What McHattie has done is offered some seemingly innocuous steps for voluntary organisations to begin adopting the same toxic metric culture that has recently put his own employer into disrepute for fixing interest rates.

…Let me explain.

To start, for all of its claims of being ‘outcome funding,’ PBR is still target funding. But with bonuses attached.

Here’s why:

  • An organisation receives funding based on achieving its outcomes
  • Those outcomes are measured by outputs – ‘x’ number of ‘y’ achieved = outcome
  • The number of outputs deemed to represent the completion of an outcome are set in advance
  • Outputs set in advance, and required to achieve funding, are targets.

With this in mind, all the arguments against target funding continue to apply to this supposedly new system. PBR is no improvement on what has come before. The addition of bonuses – much like at Barclays and the other big banks – will only worsen the effects of older target-based approaches.

The core of what’s wrong with both the old and the new target-driven funding regimes, is what former Bank of England director Charles Goodhart called ‘Goodhart’s Law’; that when numbers are used to control people (whether as bonuses, targets, or standards), they will never offer the improvements or accountability they are meant to. David Boyle of the New Economics Foundation has gone a step further, arguing that such systems create worse results than not having them in place, as a range of dishonest means are inevitably devised by those being judged on their abilities to create particular numbers, to make sure those numbers are created!

If your job is on the line over the number of people who have received work-readiness training, you will find a way to make those numbers add up to what they need to, to keep yourself in a job. The training might get shortened, 1 full-day course might become 2 half-day courses, people might be counted multiple times for what are essentially the same efforts, those who are more difficult to reach will be ignored in favour of the easiest recipients. Whatever the definitions set, you will find ways around them. And so will your organisation.

When this happens, learning opportunities are lost, accountability is destroyed, and those who are meant to be helped become numbers to be gamed.

These problems are also reinforced by a reality many of our organisations struggle to admit: that we live in a world far too complex to be able to say in advance that ‘a’ will lead to ‘b’. Even in broad-brush terms this kind of organisational fortune telling is hit-and-miss, but when it gets taken a step further (‘this many ‘a’ will lead to this many ‘b’), we are truly taking the piss. We are giving ourselves (and those who fund us) false illusions of control over situations that are the emergent results of countless interdependent factors beyond our organisational reach, whether individuals’ family lives, the economy, or the communities they are a part of, to name but a few.

And if we acknowledge that we can only play a partial role in preventing even one former inmate from reoffending (to draw on McHattie’s example), then the rest of the PBR/targets house-of-cards comes crumbling down. The only ways to keep it standing are through luck or dishonesty.

And dishonesty has been a hallmark of similar systems at Barclays and other banks. The impacts that ‘bonus culture’ has had on the financial sector were made clear by the 2008 economic collapse; from the most local level, to the most global, bonuses incentivised not ‘better performance’ but a range of quasi-legal and outright fraudulent activity designed to benefit particular individuals, rather than whole systems.

This is an inevitable result of what Dan Pink describes as if/then’ motivators (‘if you do this, then you get that’). Whether as bonuses for individual bankers reaching sales targets, or bonuses for charities hitting targets supporting former inmates to stay out of prison, the results will be the same: more dishonesty, less accountability. The paperwork might tell us that ‘more is being achieved for less,’ but the on-the-ground reality will tell us otherwise.

Taking charitable advice from a bank is like taking health advice from a fast food chain, and our sector deserves better than to quietly apply the models that have brought so many problems to the rest of the world, to the practicalities of our own critical work.

Going along with PBR might feel like a necessary evil in the interests of those we serve, but we have far too much evidence to the contrary to honestly think that might be the case. This is a system that needs to be scrapped, not ‘navigated.’ The people we exist to serve deserve nothing less.

This is the 3rd in our unexpected series on the issues of Payment by Results funding:

Give Trust, Get Accountability

Bonzo funding: Payment by Results

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Give trust, get accountability

In the last post, Paul Barasi took the recent government move towards ‘Payment by Results’ funding to task. Today we introduce a radical alternative means of achieving funding accountability: Trust!

Kittens: Better than 'Payment by Results'

Kittens: Better than ‘Payment by Results’

‘Payment by Results’ is the UK government’s latest attempt to achieve greater accountability with how public money is spent. Or so they say.

In practice, they’ve decided to apply it only to certain questionable public services, but as Paul pointed out the other week, the Olympics, Trident, and recent wars will not be held to the same standards of ‘we pay you when you have delivered what you said you would.’

David Boyle’s powerful paper against the approach, demonstrates that it poses the very same problems as ‘target-based funding,’ encouraging ‘gaming’ of the system to the detriment of all involved. You lose honesty, you lose learning, and you lose the accountability the whole system was created for.

We’ve long used numbers as a replacement for trust – ‘you said you would do ‘x’ but how can I know you did it?’ By measuring it!

Which is kinda ok for some tasks, but in many others – let’s say you’re trying to measure ‘improved wellbeing’ – there is an infinite number of ways you can fiddle the definitions to make sure your counting ‘succeeds.’

But beyond this, even if the definitions were fixed (presumably by government, but by anyone, really) they would immediately fall afoul of the first rule of complexity: things change. Therefore, as Paul wrote in relation to women feeling safer walking around their council estate in at night, fixed aims – whether as ‘targets’ or ‘results’ – will fail to take into account many of the most important impacts of a project, because they weren’t specifically what the funding was meant to achieve. And thus their value is lost on the funding systems that help enable them.

Learning to trust each other again

So what’s the alternative? You can never sew up all the loopholes and opportunities to ‘game’ a system to someone’s advantage, so let’s go back to the drawing board and give ‘trust’ the opportunity to reclaim the space ‘numbers’ stole from it, way back when…

We don’t usually associate trust and money, but a lot of people have begun experimenting with the combination lately, as the shortcomings of compliance-based accountability are gradually becoming clear. Here are a few anecdotes:

In 2010 I met Paul Story in Edinburgh – an author who had maxed-out his credit card printing 10,000 copies of his novel, Dreamwords: The Honesty Edition. His business model? Give the books to people, in the streets, in bookstores, at events, with a request to a) pay for the book online if they liked it, or b) pass it along to someone they think might enjoy it, asking them to pay for it if they liked it. Two years on he’s just published part two of his series…

Also in 2010, Toronto Star journalist Jim Rankin gave five prepaid credit cards worth $50-$75 to five different homeless people, encouraging them to get what they needed. Two were returned to him, partly used; one was never used or returned; one was stolen; and one was partially used, but never returned. For the people with maybe the most reason to exploit Rankin’s generosity, these seem like pretty good results. Imagine the costs that could be saved by adapting certain elements of organisational homelessness service provision along similar lines?

The other day I discovered Mgnetic Music, who pride themselves on a business model for independent musicians that means not having to “sue your fans to make money from your music!” Their approach? Let people download your music and pay for it if they want to. If they like it, they might pay you. If they don’t pay, you still have a new fan who will likely support and promote you in other ways. If they don’t like it, they won’t pay and wouldn’t have otherwise. Let them make the choice – it’s a lot less hassle for you, as a musician!

Now these are small and far from perfect examples, but our current systems can only pretend to be working by digging their heads deeper into the sands of compliance measures that simply allow abuses to be more thoroughly hidden in endless numbers.

Trust-based funding?

A while back, Paul Barasi, Veena Vasista and I started exploring ‘Trust-based funding.’ While it never got past an initial conversation with a funder and another with a law firm working on public sector commissioning processes, we began to imagine it what it might look like at the different stages of the grant process:

‘What we want to support’ (Guidance)

  • Providing very loose definitions, perhaps starting from a ‘these are the things we definitely DO NOT want to fund’ perspective to weed-out those who are absolutely unqualified, without boxing those who might be qualified into terms they don’t fit

‘What you want to achieve’ (Application)

  • Jointly-developing means of demonstrating impact, to give funded groups a real sense of ownership over the process and a sense of responsibility to themselves, as well as those funding them
  • Not creating any direct relationship between what is stated initially and what is expected later, leaving room for changes and on-the-ground learning, as the most effective projects tend to do, but often have to hide from those funding them

‘What you are delivering’ (Delivery)

  • Recognising that funders and recipients are working towards the same goals and must hold each other to account throughout the process, helping create a relationship in which ‘funding’ and ‘delivery’ are seen as two equal parts of a joint-process, where both parties can constructively challenge each other, without retribution
  • Trusting people who have been through an appropriate application process to do what they say they will with the money they are given, offering support and connections, rather than oversight and one-way accountability

‘What we have achieved together’ (Evaluation)

  • Emphasising the qualitative impact of services, shifting the inclination from ‘box-ticking’ and ‘target-chasing’ by both parties
  • Assuming that recipients will spend their money appropriately, and asking them to provide the story of their work in whatever ways they feel best conveys its full breadth
  • Weighting valuable, but unexpected/unplanned outcomes on par with predetermined ones

We also added a further stage:

‘How those we support are better prepared for the future’ (Potential)

  • Ensuring that at the end of the funding period, recipients are better placed to continue doing good work, viewing the process as developmental, rather than simply about the fixed funding period

Putting it to work

What’s above is barely a skeleton of an approach, but no matter how much work we put into it, someone putting it into practice is going to have to stick their neck out if it is going to get a fair hearing.

Paul, Veena and I have put forward an idea, with a tiny bit of meat on the bones, but now we’d like to turn it over to you.
In this spirit of the guidance stage above, what we DON’T want is simply highlighting the things that could go wrong. These are largely no-brainers. The trust approach accepts that ‘things inevitably go wrong’ in any system, and with that in mind it is not worth perpetually trying to mitigate against them, by dragging down all the honest people to a ‘lowest common denominator’ compliance model.

So here’s the question for you:

What would make the idea we’ve outlined above BETTER than it currently is?

Looking forward to seeing where you might take this…

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Bonzo Funding: Payment by Results

Paul Barasi spent eleven years developing the Compact – an agreement between government and the voluntary sector to help both sides work better together. But recent government plans to bring back ‘payment-by-results’ funding for services are about as far from a ‘more like people’ approach as you can get. Paul takes their hypocrisy to task in his first Concrete Solutions blog.

Raiders of the Lost Compact

Paul Barasi

Paul Barasi

The Compact was first conceived in a chat on a train between local activists and MPs and led to the 1998 agreement for ‘Getting It Right Together’ between the Voluntary Sector and Government. It eventually graduated to a more holistic ‘Compact Way of Working,’ yet could be buried to government officials singing ‘Never Mind the Cash Flow, we’ve got Payment By Results.’

Around five years ago, many local partnership relationships peaked with the emergence of ‘a Compact way of working.’ This approach transcended a Ten Commandments-style written declaration. It was about far more than just following the rules. It meant living the shared values like treating partners fairly; working together from the start on issues affecting the voluntary sector; and above all, trust.

Fast forward to the Coalition Compact and we can still hear such hits as “Social action over state control and top-down Government-set targets,” “Shifting power away from the centre,” “Equal treatment across sectors,” “Proportionate Risks” and that chart-topper: “Payment in Advance”. But recently the tune has changed; instead we are hearing “Retrospective payment” which will reward Efficiency through professional top down control and take us back to a More Like Paper approach.

But will the voluntary sector be able to match government professionals in delivering pre-set results on time and within budget?

And why should the voluntary sector have to play by one set of rules, when the lion’s share of government spending seems to have none of the same stipulations attached?

Games with results

The London Olympics taxpayers’ subsidy rocketed tenfold from £1bn – with results measured by what: 29 UK gold medals for £10bn? Number of unethical sponsors or school playing fields sold? Who decides success? Imagine if the voluntary sector tried to play by these rules!

Wars with inhuman results

Afghan and Iraqi wars were a snip for the UK at just £20bn. Who’d know they’d be no weapons of mass destruction – as if the 2m demonstrators, dismissed as misguided by Blair, had been any advance indication. Who bothered to define what success would look like: maybe keeping the human cost of liberation down below 300,000 civilian deaths. Who pays for failure?

Subs and planes

Or the hopelessly misnamed “Astute” nuclear submarine: just £1bn over budget and delivered 4 years late. That makes the £100m cost of the May 2012 U-turn on picking Navy fighter jets hardly worth mentioning.

(OK, our subs won’t know where they are without US navigation satellites nor could these launch the leased Trident ‘independent’ nukes without the Yanks, but hopefully the jets will be able to do u-turns and somersaults in mid-air before more of our cash disappears into thin air.)

Rewarding Government efficiency?

The Home Office could get paid on the basis of how many Brits are extradited to the US or how many decades this takes or how much it spends on legal costs to do it, or not to do it?

It’s not just officials getting bonuses instead of the sack, but would anyone trust either of these government departments to do their weekly shopping?

Thatcherite Retrials

The crude payment by results regime that government wants to impose seems a throw-back pre-dating even the 1990s. Back then the Department of Health was experimenting with Outcomes Funding for alcohol counselling which valued not just the number who achieved total salvation but the progress people made along the way. After all those battles over sustainability, not funding on the cheap (rebranded more for less), full cost recovery, unfair claw back, down-pricing contracts, is government returning to rip-offs like a supermarket displaying one price and charging another?

What counts in the community?

I remember one housing estate project which achieved the wonderful result of women no longer being afraid to go out after dark. It didn’t count, as government hadn’t included this as a pre-set target. I recall a street theatre group destroyed by funders making it not just perform but have performance targets, and board meetings, too. Or take a project for young volunteers who cleaned up the environment: they made lots of new friends, were more likely to volunteer again, and acquired skills and confidence to do new things – what a result!

Saying goodbye by shaking the crap off our feet

The dehumanising organisational culture of the Civil Service can’t even compare with the traditional voluntary sector, let alone new grassroots social movements, in terms of its understanding of what kinds of systems will help people to realise their potential and make change happen. Trust-based funding is the right way forward (more on this model to come). This way, funders accept an element of risk, knowing projects will fail, and trusting the intentions of those doing the work to do it with the right intentions and define their impacts in the ways they feel are most appropriate. Payment-by-results is a backward step and if government funding can’t pass the More Like People test, the voluntary sector should walk out, walk on.

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Writing #MoreLikePeople/ Practicing-what-I-preach

As I approach the half-way point in Draft 1 of Anarchists in the Boardroom, I wanted to reflect on the various ways I was experimenting with applying the ideas of this book to the writing processes, and to my own working habits in the process…

‘How would I write a book, ‘more like people’’ I asked myself?

NZ sunset

I thought you’d like a picture. Here’s one I took in NZ…

The simple answer was of course, ‘I could write it in any number of different ways, just like people would!’

…Which is fundamentally true. This book is not about outlining one-size-fits-all solutions. It makes a lot of suggestions, and highlights the principles that underpin them, but it doesn’t say ‘This is what more like people means, full stop!’

But since writing this book is my current working life, I figured it was important for me to be playing around with what the principles meant for me, during this project.

So what have I done?

Writing social media into the book

Rather than pretend the meta-level of ‘people discussing the themes of the book’ is separate from the book itself, I’ve included a section in Chapter 1 about continuing an online conversation while it is being read. It talks about the #morelikepeople hashtag, and the upcoming website URL, and encourages people to find others who are reading it, to share insights and things that parts of the book make them think about.

I’ve also included the Twitter handles of the people I mention in the book who have them, immediately after their names, so readers can reach out and connect with them directly when they are reading about their ideas or their stories.
If I can pull the book away from being ‘the central hub’ for these ideas, but can still use it to help connect people, I feel like it’ll be a positive step towards making the things I’m writing about happen.

Crowdsource everything!

Well, not everything, but I’ve been keen to ask a lot of questions on Twitter and Facebook throughout the process. These questions have included:

  • What of the following subjects are you interested for me to write about today, and why?
  • Do you know any good resources about [blank]?
  • Who would like to read the chapter I just wrote about [blank]?

The 1st time I asked which chapter folks were keen to read, there was a strong response for Chapter 7, which relates to hip-hop culture and innovation.

So I wrote it.

Having the extra boost of knowing that I was writing about something (more specific than the book itself), that interested people was a good motivator and helped get me over the hump of starting a new chapter.

When I asked for resources about ‘professional culture’, an old activist friend from my teenage years suggested a book by Jeff Schmidt that has ended up playing a significant part in Chapter 2.

Don’t get stuck to a certain approach if it’s not working

After the success of asking people what they wanted me to write about the first time, I tried it again… but when Twitter decided I should write Chapter 9, I realised that I wasn’t really in the right headspace to write Chapter 9…

So I dropped it.

Trying to write about something I didn’t have the energy for that day was a lost cause, so I did a bit of introspection and decided I wanted to get into Chapter 2 instead.

I followed the energy. In my experience of writing – or basically any more creative or non-linear endeavour – if you have any choice in the matter at all, always work with what you’re excited about in the moment. It will inevitably come out much better than whatever else you could have been doing with less enthusiasm in that time.

Debate everything!

Twitter’s also good for floating quotes and hypotheses.

A Re-Tweet or three, or a couple of ‘Favorites’ is often a good indication you might be on to something.

Silence might imply letting it drop, or trying again later, as there’s always a luck-of-the-draw aspect to Twitter…

You might also end-up starting an argument with someone who will either help you sharpen your thesis a little, or make you re-evaluate it a bit…

The ever-argumentative @kidecono (previously @andyvglnt, who I also have done some less-adversarial stuff with in the past) is usually good to bash big ideas around with. His opening salvos are often along the lines of ‘bollocks!’ or, on a more diplomatic day, ‘That’s a logical fallacy.’ Most recently, we threw around the respective values of ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ world views… It all got a bit ‘meta’ at some stage, but he definitely pushed me to avoid becoming too one-sided in my approach.

This is really valuable during a writing project, where you’re inevitably fixed at a desk, mostly alone, for hours and days on end. Being challenged is a great gift, when it is done constructively.

Find circles of helpful ‘editors’

In the same line, I’ve been gradually sourcing a list of people – some of whom are people I’ve interviewed or quoted, others people who’ve shown an interest – to offer critical feedback on draft chapters.  Sometimes they are broadly supporters, at other times they’re people I have disagreements with.

I email each Chapter to a handful of them, and see who gets back to me.

If one or two reply with some detailed thoughts, the chapter inevitably improves. If more do, it’s that much better. Diverse opinions help to fill a writer’s personal gaps.

The folks who had replied on Twitter with interest in Chapter 9, for example, are part of the circle who I will ask to feedback on Chapter 9, when it’s ready… so even though I didn’t take their suggestions on at the time, I’ve kept them in the loop and I’m sure, if they have a chance to reply, it will help the book to be better than it was…

I’ve also had my wonderfully helpful friend and colleague Paul, Tweeting me a constant array of both relevant links and quotes, as well as feedback as he reads the draft chapters… which has sometimes sparked conversations with others, as it’s all happening publicly…

Think about your own working habits

I’ve always known I’m not much of a morning person. Even when I wake up early, it’s unlikely I’ll be in anything like peak shape before about lunch time. Yet, each day in the writing process, with an intense discipline, I was at my desk by 9am!

Eventually I realised that, while I was at my desk, I wasn’t accomplishing very much for the first few hours there… After lunch, things would usually pick up, and I’d happily write, with minimal break, til 8 or 9 or 10 or…

This meant that various bits of things – household stuff, nice times with Jen, leaving the house for any reason at all (!!!!) – often slipped off the agenda for the day…

Retrospectively, with no boss here to tell me otherwise, this seems like a no-brainer, but like so many ingrained habits, it took me a while to figure out that ‘I don’t need to write in the mornings!’

The ‘internalised boss’ had been telling me otherwise. There was no practical reason for it, but I was doing it anyway. In the guise of ‘self-discipline,’ I was conforming to the very systems I was writing about alternatives to… [insert ironic comment here]

Today I started to push myself on this. I slept a bit later, did some exercise, made a good breakfast, then got into emails and other miscellaneous bits of work, before sinking my teeth into the book…

It’ll take some practice to fight off the vaguely workaholic notions I sometimes seem disposed to, but when I do, I feel better, and when I feel better, I write better words…

So that’s it so far…

I’m not sure if this is too specific and self-employment-relevant to be useful to folks in organisations, or if you might draw some parallels from it, but I felt it was worth putting out there!

In the spirit of the post, the book, and the values I’m trying to live in the world, let me know if you’ve got any other ideas about how I could apply the approaches of this book to the writing process!

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Where the organisation ends and the movement begins…

Today an excellent article about a campaign I have been very active in was printed in a newspaper not-at-all known for its progressive tilt.

It will introduce the campaign to a massive and influential audience who would likely have never heard of the issues before today. This could potentially shift (or spark!) UK public debate on something which has thus far been a fringe interest for a relatively niche part of the activist world.

In other words, I’m pretty damned excited about it!

While not mentioned, I can say with confidence that I played a significant role in the story appearing as it did. As it happens, I was lucky enough to play that role in a paid capacity for one of the organisations involved in the broader campaign.

The organisation I was working with – like all of the other organisations involved, actually – was not mentioned in the article, however, part of the framing of the story, and some of the people whose’ stories were told, came from dialogue I had had with the author, and introductions I had made over the last few months.

I’m not saying this in any way to promote myself, but that when I was working with that organisation, there was a regular emphasis (while much subtler than it can be in most NGOs) on getting the name into the press. This was for obvious reasons most of us will have experienced – building recognition, reporting to funders, etc. All sound reasons, in their own right.

Organisationally – this news story didn’t check any boxes, won’t appear in any reports, or secure future support for their work. Yet it spent resources paying me to help make it what it was.

From a movement perspective though, this story is big news. As I write, it has over a thousand Facebook ‘likes’, demonstrating a reach well-beyond that of most of the organisations involved.

When this many new people become aware of an issue, it makes work much easier for the activists involved, as they are not having to explain it from scratch in every conversation and interview, because the knowledge base of the people you are talking to has expanded overnight.

Further, when this many new people become aware of an issue via an incredibly sympathetic introduction (like this article), it goes that much further to building public pressure for the kinds of changes you hope to see…

But our organisations don’t have an investment in this kind of change. In many workplaces, as soon as it became clear that there would be no direct benefit to the organisation of me putting several hours into emails, research and introductions, I would have been expected to re-direct my attention to a more pressing organisational priority.

Luckily in this organisation, this wasn’t the case.

But the fact that it so often is, highlights the very uncomfortable reality that so often occurs when we create social change organisations: from the moment they exist as separate entities, their interests are not always those of the causes they were set up to fight for; in fact, sometimes they are at odds with those causes.

Work that focuses on maintaining and growing the organisation itself – recruitment, publicity, fundraising, marketing, human resources, IT, among others – are all, at best, tertiary to supporting the cause; if we ‘x’, than we can ‘y’, and hopefully ‘z’ will happen.

But like in the case of this article, ‘z’ might not be aligned with doing ‘x’, meaning it is not where organisational effort will necessarily be prioritised. Which might be inconsequential, but might also be a massive missed opportunity for the movement.

I only mention this, as a reminder, as we are sitting in our organisations, to spend less time emphasising the organisational outcomes, and more emphasising those relevant to the broader causes we exist to serve.

If we cannot prioritise the cause over the organisation, than we have lost our reason for being and are draining effort and resources from places that might use them better.

More positively, how can we make sure that ‘organisational priorities’ don’t trump ‘movement priorities’?

What might help us to remind ourselves about the real reasons we are doing what we do in our organisations, to avoid becoming self-perpetuating machines, detached from the causes that initially sparked our passion?

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Five reasons – in no particular order – why hierarchy sucks

While writing a piece for the book on just this subject, I realised I’d never put all the things I don’t like about hierarchy in one clear place… nor seen it done succinctly elsewhere. So here’s my non-comprehensive polemic on why I think hierarchy is about the worst default setting we could pick for our organisations…

Chichen Itza

FACT: Organisations that build pyramids are less resilient than their counterparts

Few concepts are as ingrained in our institutions as that of hierarchy. We assume that someone will have final say, that we always report to someone, that someone should be earning more than someone else…

But when it comes down to it, hierarchy doesn’t sit that well with the core values of most progressive people, even if we practice it in countless settings on a day-to-day basis.

I don’t think we need to accept it as a ‘necessary evil’, undermining our lived visions of the world any more. But that’s what the book’s about. Here’s why hierarchy sucks:

It assumes the worst of people, and thus is likely to foster the worst in them

From the basic premise of having to ‘start at the bottom and work your way up’, hierarchy doesn’t give any of us the credit to be able to do the amazing things that people constantly demonstrate the ability to do, irrespective of where they might fall on an organisational chart.

More practically though, hierarchy denies us the autonomy to use our judgment and figure things out in our own ways.

Formalising accountability – especially when it only flows in one direction – breaks down trust, because it assumes we won’t be honest about our strengths and weaknesses.

If we can’t be honest with each other, this is what we need to look at understanding, rather than creating structures that make it harder to develop a shared sense of collective accountability for what we do.

It creates power dynamics that foster dishonesty and poor information sharing/coordination/learning

By centralising power and control, you distribute the desire for power and control. When power and control are more evenly shared, there is less reason for most people to want more of it.

Everyone needs to make themselves look better than someone else, if they want to progress their career, improve their income, etc. The hierarchy pits individual interest, against the shared/collective interest, which can’t be a good thing for any organisation that hopes to have some kind of future.

It expects its leaders to be superheroes

It elevates individuals to positions in which the unattainable is expected of them. Because their job title is ‘x’, they are expected to do ‘y’… A promotion to ‘w’ means they are expected to do ‘y+1’… which makes sense… until it doesn’t.

Many argue that the people in leadership positions of massive multinational institutions can in no meaningful way know enough about their organisation to justify the difference between their salaries and the salaries of those below them. The rises follow a linear progression, but have no grounding in practical reality. At a certain stage ‘y+1’ becomes the straw that broke the camel’s back, surpassing human ability, or the number of hours in a day, and becoming inherently unachievable. But we pretend this isn’t the case, and all the ‘failed’ leaders have failed due to their own shortcomings, not something inherent to our expectations of them.

It pretends we live in a linear and controllable world that only exists as a Fordian fantasy, wasting heaps of time

Strategic planning suggests that if you get the correct executives in an expensive enough room for an extended period of time, you will be able to predict the future.

Important people (according to the hierarchy) spend a great deal of time together in organisations, writing documents which declare, in spite of everything outside their walls: ‘A will lead to B will lead to C’.

Additionally, they write further documents to detail how others will ensure that A will lead to B will lead to C.

And then something unexpected happens – as it invariably does – and all their hard work is at best swept aside, and at worse, followed to a T, in spite of a radically changed reality.

When reality strikes, it should make crystal clear that those in the institution who are receiving the largest proportionate amount of its resources, do not have a crystal ball than can plan for any eventuality. By nature of having been elevated to a certain plateau, these individuals have not achieved a superhuman ability to understand all the parts of a complex system.

It denies the centrality of context, assuming that the best decisions can be made from outside the contexts they will be applied in

If we think the best decisions can be made by the people furthest away from their application, we’ve got another thing coming…

The theory that enough information will ‘trickle-up’, from-street-to-suite, to give those who have never experienced the situations they are making decisions for, enough understanding to do a good job, is basically nuts and is not remotely grounded in the experiences of the real world, from sector-to-sector.

Given what we know about how information moves through hierarchical systems (see the first two points), we can’t really believe such systems provide the stuff of good decision making, can we?

Good decisions must be grounded in the realities they will apply to. This is also why ‘scaling up’ of good local ideas almost never works; context is everything, and replacing particular situations and relationships with others and expecting the results to be the same, only makes sense if you are far enough from the ground, for the critical details to have become invisible.

…What have I missed? What is unfair generalisation? What am I misattributing blame for?

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Organisational culture: It doesn’t shape itself

Leadership and the new scienceMargaret Wheatley, in ‘Leadership and the new science’, writes about ‘fields’, as they apply to organisational culture.

In science, fields are the in-between forces that are only visible through their impact. Gravity, for example, cannot be seen or measured, yet we experience its manifestations throughout our lives.

Wheatley applies the same thinking to organisational culture; it affects us, it shapes our experiences and our behaviours, but we can’t easily put a finger on what it is, beyond being confident that it definitely exists.

Reading Wheatley’s framing of culture left me thinking; while we might not be able to see or touch gravity, we have found ways to shift it through technology, and we know it is different in different settings. By extending the metaphor, what does this mean for the ‘field’ of workplace culture?

Here is a starting point; what do you think?

You are sitting at your desk. Your colleague two desks away is being served an uncalled-for quantity of verbal abuse by their manager.

It’s uncomfortable. This discomfort is creating, undermining, or reinforcing your understanding of your workplace culture, depending on your experiences there before the incident.

The  next day the same thing happens again. Your perceptions this time are either reinforced, or further undermined.

The kicker? Your behaviour is now most likely being shaped by what you have experienced. You might be a little less open, a little more defensive, slightly less comfortable with the time you spend at the office…

And today you are also sitting beside a new colleague. This is the first time they have played witness to the bullying dynamic, but not only do they see the bully-bullied pair, but also anyone else in the office not standing up for the one being treated unfairly.

This shapes their perception of the situation, as it did yours, which in turn shapes how they engage with their new workplace.

Their perception may well be that much worse than yours, because they have not only witnessed the toxic act of workplace bullying, but also the failure of their new colleagues to say anything against what had happened.

Through each of these experiences, a field is emerging; it is a field of mistrust, guardedness, pragmatic calculation, formed on the basis of both the acts of the manager and corresponding thoughts and reactions of others, which have a strong tendency to reinforce one another, if not consciously challenged.

Protecting ourselves… at the organisation’s expense

While your (or my) response to the initial bullying makes perfect sense at the level of protecting oneself, it also plays to reinforce the field that is taking shape around us. When we ignore or avoid, we are in fact complimenting and reinforcing the negative dynamic through our complicity. In failing to constructively support our colleague, we complicity contribute to the further deterioration of the field that is our organisation’s culture.

But enough of the bad stuff!

So what would the alternative look like? What can we do to shift the field of ‘organisational culture’, to create a workplace where people are happy, enjoy their time together and create good things in the process?

In my experience, it starts with being conscious of ourselves. If we agree that both our perceptions and our actions play a role in shaping the culture around us, what could we do to move it in a positive direction?

The challenge, of course, at the individual level then, is how we can become more aware of our own influences on the field of organisational culture, to help shift it in a way that improves everyone’s (including our own) experience.

Projections and Perceptions

projection perception loopIn the example above, I described how the bullying manager was projecting certain behaviours into the organisational culture field, and how we, as onlookers in the office were both perceiving them, and then acting differently as a result of them. We’ll call this the ‘Projection-Perception Loop’; the system through which behaviour is enacted by one person, interpreted by the second person, and then (often) re-enacted by the second person, creating a cycle that can be either good or bad.

So what happens if we shift our input?

What if we were more aware of the ways we responded when people treated us or others like crap at the office? What if, instead of retreating, or attacking back, we simply started to engage differently?

In destructive situations, we often revert to the old ‘fight or flight’, ‘silence or violence’ dichotomy, but can we be conscious in those moments and find a less destructive ‘third way’? Can we focus on the positive relationships that are there at the office, the elements we enjoy more, rather than giving more attention to the parts of the organisational culture field that we don’t like? Can we improve trust amongst our colleagues by sharing more openly with them, making ourselves a bit vulnerable?

Accepting some responsibility… and thus some credit?

There’s nothing easy about this level of change; it usually involves re-evaluating some very deep gut responses to situations we don’t feel any responsibility for creating.

But if we acknowledge that we have played some small role in making the environment as toxic as we have experienced it can be, can we also take credit for acting differently and thus not perpetuating the cycle again?

Like the old parenting mantra reiterated through generations to the fighting young boys who both claim that the other ‘started it!’, ‘it’s not about who started it, but who finishes it.’

  • What steps can we take or have you taken to break a bad cycle that has helped grow a destructive organisational culture?
  • Have you experienced destructive cycles in any other relationships in your life that you’ve been able to shift the patterns around?
  • What are some of the defining traits when you have experienced a positive ‘field’ of organisational culture?

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